Monthly Archives: May 2009

“The Truth Commission” or “How To Avoid Repeating the Past” (I’m back!)

Let’s talk about this idea of a “Truth Commission:”

History (and I mean recent history) has shown us that it is extraordinarily important for a society to confront, atone, and record the grave misdeeds of its past, as opposed to simply “forgetting” about said past and looking toward the future. Even for me, it is difficult not to instinctively believe that simply moving forward is the best use of national resources. However, vastly disparate contemporary political conditions in Germany and Austria attest to the cost of willful forgetfulness and the manipulation or glossing over of an unflattering historical narrative:

Assuming that most of you have, at the very least, an elementary understanding of the events leading up to and during WWII, I will not recap the war crimes committed by these two countries, as this is not a comparison between American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and those of the Third Reich. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that the United States today (or of the past 8 years) is comparable to Nazi Germany, and neither am I suggesting that American citizens were equally silently complicit, as many have claimed of the citizenry of Germany and Austria in the 1930s-1940s. I do, however, think that the aftermath (and I use that word lightly as I am really looking to the 1960s-1980s) contains lessons that we need to learn from.

Today, Germany’s parliament has one of the lowest levels of far-right participation in Europe (1.4%). Austria has the highest (18%). German Neo-Nazi groups certainly exist, but are extraordinarily limited and shunned by the general population. In Austria, the interests of the extreme right are discussed in the halls of government. How did this happen? What accounts for this disparity? Scholars have posited that Germany’s eventual willingness to confront its Nazi past through a surprisingly honest national dialogue that accepted guilt, as opposed to Austria’s “victim” narrative, provided a certain catharsis and openness that acknowledged the importance of admitting and atoning for the mistakes of the past in order to avoid repeating them in the future. Suddenly the younger generations had a frame and language with which to discuss Germany’s past with the older generations, and in doing so they effectively killed the elephant that was sucking the oxygen out of the room.

Austria, on the other hand, chose to perceive its position in WWII as that of the victim, thus ensuring that national guilt and shame remain slowly boiling beneath the surface and necessitating a certain amount of justification in order to maintain the status quo. Austria agreed with the school of thought that said focusing on the future rather than the past is a cleaner, less messy means of moving the country forward. This, however, essentially ensured the rise of the far-right as a major political player since Austria had/(has) yet been unwilling to even admit that it was the ideals of a not-completely-dissimilar far-right that led to their complicity in the first place. Admitting to the failings of the far-right would be admitting to complicity, which would then negate the victim narrative and then where would they end up? The unwavering answer should be, “hopefully not back in the 1940s.”

One must see Austria and Germany as exemplifying the two directions in which a society can go after major national trauma. We can look at the past, confront it, and weave it into a better future and a more honest national narrative or we can pretend like the past doesn’t exist and focus exclusively on what is ahead. These are our only two options and the one that we, as Americans, decide upon may define our future decades down the road. The idea of a “Truth Commission” may seem like liberal mumbo-jumbo to a lot of people who think talk is cheap, but in this case silence could end up a much more costly and dangerous game.

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